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Arming Jews hasn't saved us in the past. Why would it now?

The massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend has led many to return to an age-old question: should Jews be arming themselves in the face of violent anti-Semitism?

By Roni Masel

Jewish victims of the Kishinev pogrom, 1903.

Jewish victims of the Kishinev pogrom, 1903.

It didn’t take long for President Donald Trump to offer his two cents on the cause for the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation last Saturday, which left 11 people dead. Not long after news of the massacre broke, Trump said the following:

[Gun laws have] little to do with it, […] If you take a look, if they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect, but if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation. They didn’t. [The gunman] was able to do things that unfortunately he shouldn’t have been able to do.

He is right about one thing: the debate surrounding Jewish armed self-defense is long and recurring.

All roads lead to the late 19th century, when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish organization supporting refugees and immigrants, and which reportedly drew the rage of the Pittsburgh shooter, was founded. Upon its establishment, HIAS’s goal was to help Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe due to political and economic instability, and sometimes violent outbreaks that came to be known as “pogroms.” Emigration was certainly one way Jews chose to confront and survive these hardships. However, local community leaders in Eastern Europe had other solutions, one of the most prominent of which was armed self-defense.

In the eyes of community leaders, Jewish self-defense could remedy two plights at once: on the one hand, they believed it would prevent or minimize the threat of anti-Jewish violence. On the other hand, armed self-defense could play an important symbolic role: to rehabilitate the image of the despised diasporic Jew, the coward and effeminate nomad, so often portrayed as a slim, weak, urban, and degenerate creature. It doesn’t take much to detect the strong anti-Semitic overtones of these images, but movements on both ends of the Jewish political spectrum — Zionists and socialists alike —recognized these to be the “plights” of the Jew, which required fixing.

This sentiment culminated in the famous Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter,” written by Jewish poet H.N. Bialik after the horrific pogrom in Kishinev in 1903. The poem accuses the Jews of Kishinev of cowardly and passively accepting their fate and on the following morning going around from one community to the other, shnorring, collecting funds like beggars. In one of the cruelest and most unsettling moments in the poem, Jewish men are described peeping from their holes and hiding places, watching their wives being raped by pogromists, doing nothing and praying “A miracle, O Lord, — and spare my skin this day!” The most astonishing fact about this accusatory poem, which blames Jews for the violence committed against them, is that it was an absolute and utter lie.

Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik, 1923. (Avraham Soskin)

Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik, 1923. (Avraham Soskin)

Bialik was sent to Kishinev on behalf of the Jewish Historical Commission, which was established to provide information that would enable the launch of wide scale Jewish self-defense efforts. He was supposed to interview survivors and witnesses, collect documents, and subsequently publish a report. Instead, he suppressed the testimonies and evidence, and sat down in his father-in-law’s country house to write the poem. The two texts – the poem and the collection of testimonies and documents – are so profoundly contradictory that one finds it hard to believe they all came from the same person.

Indeed, from Bialik’s and others’ documents of the pogrom, it appears that there was serious and extensive armed self-defense in Kishinev, as was the case in another pogrom that took place a few months later in Gomel, where armed resistance left more pogromists dead than Jews.

That armed self-defense was ineffective in preventing pogroms is evident in historical research on the topic. In fact, it was even evident to some of the historical figures themselves, such as Simon Dubnow, one of the founders of the Jewish Historical Commission, who was skeptical about effectiveness of armed self-defense. While he hoped that by declaring that the Jews would fight back would cause the pogromists to retreat, he was also aware that it could trigger the opposite effect: that the threat of violence on behalf of the Jews might stir up even more aggression. Yet perhaps the strongest example of the ineffectiveness of Jewish armed self-defense is the State of Israel, which after 70 years is still unable to solve the problem of Jewish insecurity.



Traditionally, Jews employed other forms of protection like diplomacy and intercession. In the twentieth century, Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe sought solidarity with other ethnic minorities and joined forces in class struggle to advance their security. All over the colonized world, in the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa and elsewhere Jews participated in anti-colonial struggle, understanding that any form ethnic oppression is bound to hurt them too.

This isn’t to say that we should accept the verdict of anti-Semitism as a given fact, rather we should view it as a political phenomenon. Those on the Jewish right who try to argue that the Pittsburgh attack was merely one in a long chain of Jewish hatred in fact trivialize anti-Semitism, presenting it as eternal and unavoidable. As a political phenomenon, it must be read against its historical, material and political context, which today is marked by rising ethnic and racialized animosity, cruel neoliberal policies, and the renewed force of nationalism and imperialism.

Trump’s remarks on self-defense need to be taken in context as well. One might argue his comments simply reveal that he is an ardent Zionist, who like many Zionists in the 20th century blamed the Jews’ “passivity” for their own victimization, and who continues advocating the false doctrine that Jewish armed self-defense will protect them from anti-Semitic violence.

Some Jews on the conservative side might therefore see his remarks as tolerable. But in the context of the long debate on Jewish self-defense, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, is not Bialik. If anything, Trump is more like Tsar Nikolai II, ruler of the Russian Empire at the time of the Kishinev pogrom, often accused by world rulers of inciting inter-ethnic animosity in his own country in order to keep his reign.

When it comes to my security, I find it rather unwise to heed the advice of our new Nikolai II. Instead I prefer the long-standing Jewish diasporic tradition of diplomacy and negotiation, while showing solidarity with other minority groups in a joint political struggle.

Roni Masel is a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Her dissertation, “Diasporic Horrors, Diasporic Dreams,” focuses on narratives of anti-Jewish violence in modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

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    1. Mark

      One has to remember that Trump is an insanely stupid and ignorant man. Whatever comes into his head emerges immediately out of his mouth.

      If there were an armed guard in the synagogue, a killer could simply turn his attention to the Jewish deli, or school, or sports club or any other place where Jews congregate.

      Essentially there aren’t enough armed guards to go around. The conclusion therefore is that each citizen from 15 to 95 should arm themselves. There are a whole bunch of Americans who seem to believe this is the way to secure their personal safety. They disregard the fact that it equally applies to the mentally unstable, the depressed, those with politically incorrect views etc etc.

      The obvious solution to remove guns (and other offensive weapons) from society is apparently unconstitutional. If he truly believes he can change Amendment 14 by Executive Order, it’s in his power to change Amendment #2. Failing that he can do it the tried and trusted way through Congress.

      Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        Or alternatively the Jews might have to create some sort of autonomous entity where they can defend their borders and have a military that is dedicated to defending them. But that is definitely entirely unrealistic.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Well, they already have an autonomous entity relentlessly trying to expand its borders, which it refuses to define, and a military that is dedicated to offense on that score. As Yehuda Shaul says, the occupying IDF tells its people and other people that it is acting in defense of Israel and is on the way out (of the territories) when in reality it is actually always on offence and always on the way in. For lovers of realism and verisimilitude and authenticity:

          Yehuda Shaul – Breaking the Silence – Seattle, Nov 14, 2013

          So for you who supposedly wants what you say you want, I think your model needs some tweaking but it could definitely be repurposed. But you’d actually have to want to really truly have “autonomous entity where they can defend their borders and have a military that is dedicated to defending them.” Not just pretend that you do.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      I love this history lesson. “Jewish radicals in Eastern Europe sought solidarity and joined forces in class struggle to advance their security”. “All over the colonized world, in the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa and elsewhere Jews participated in anti-colonial struggle.” “Yet perhaps the strongest example of the ineffectiveness of Jewish armed self-defense is the State of Israel, which after 70 years is still unable to solve the problem of Jewish insecurity.”

      Surprisingly the Jews from Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East have all found shelter in Israel. As have many South African Jews. They must have not done this solidarity thing correctly. Sad.

      Reply to Comment
      • duh

        Israel is good for fighting the enemies Zionism made in the course of taking over Palestine… and that’s about it.

        Also, on the off chance you think this, no, had Israel existed by the late 1930’s it would not have prevented the Holocaust or even significantly reduced the death toll.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Israel is good at providing a safe haven for Jews that were forced to run away from Eastern Europe and the rest of the Middle East. That is, it is a safe haven for Jews running from places where historically the policies of diplomacy, intercession, solidarity and class struggle have failed them.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            But let’s just edit Hitler and Orban and Trump, and the latest 11 dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, out of history in order to make your bullshit plausible.
            What you are trying to force here is a dumbing down, to pretend we are not capable of making fairly basic connections, and asking us to go along. It won’t work. People are not as dumb as you think. You are another in a long line that seems to think people cannot read.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            No clue what Orban, Hitler, Trump or Pittsburgh have to do with Israel being a thriving nation which is safe for Jews that ran away from Eastern Europe and the rest of the Middle East where the populations tried exactly the tactics promoted by the author.

            But you go ahead and play obtuse. It comes to you naturally.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “you go ahead and play obtuse“

            This is the internet chat room equivalent of the right wing settler tactic of “mirroring”: They accuse you of illegal settlements? Fine, turn around and call Palestinian villages “illegal outposts.”

            Transparent nonsense but we understand the tactic and see right through it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Still playing obtuse then?

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Because the attacks on Trump as being anti-Semitic are primarily hand waving and guilt by association.

            The worst case of Trump himself saying something ‘anti-Semitic’ is what? Him saying that he thinks the RJC won’t support him because he won’t take their money when all the RJC money was going to Cruz and Rubio?

            People have investigated his entire life. He is recorded, interviewed, leaked over and over again and this is proof of his anti-Semitism? Do I really need go into the case to the contrary?

            Over this empty nonsense the ‘as a Jew’ leftist progressive Jews want to declare Trump enemy of the Jews? Why? What is there to gain? Petty progressive politics points? Screw that.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @Firentis: Since you generally come across as much smarter than the position you are taking, I am going to level the charge that you are playing obtuse again. The seemingly simple-minded equation you are making is that a manipulative, sociopathic right wing demagogue (like Trump (or Bibi)) has to be himself a true-believer anti-Semite in order to participate in manipulative dog whistling and emboldening and wink and nod encouragement. If you think Trump has not been very deliberately and forcefully doing exactly that, then you haven’t been paying attention, or don’t want to look very hard. There is blood on his hands in a very meaningful sense. I mean, even ADL’s Abe Foxman and Bret Stephens don’t buy what you’re selling, Firentis. Please don’t try to tell me that Bret Stephens of all people is a ‘liberal virtue signaler’ or someone not aligned generally with Israel’s right wing. But he’s also not a dumb ass:

            “In an interview on Tuesday with The Times of Israel, Abe Foxman, the former longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, precisely expresses the president’s level of responsibility for what happened in Pittsburgh.

            “Pittsburgh is not Trump,” Foxman says. “It’s also Trump.” Trump, he adds, is not an anti-Semite. But fanning one set of hatreds against immigrants has a way of fanning others, as it did for Bowers when he attacked the synagogue because he was enraged by its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

            Turning to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Foxman says of Trump, “He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s O.K.

            “And when he had an opportunity to put it down,” Foxman adds, “he didn’t.” The blood that flowed in Pittsburgh is on his hands, also.”


            Reply to Comment
      • True radical

        What were they called (the author’s “Jewish radicals”)? Oh yes… “useful idiots”! If they didn’t end up in Auschwitz they ended up in Stalin’s gulags. The author seems to regret that the Jews in Israel are no longer dependent “on the kindness of strangers”.

        Reply to Comment
        • Stephen Cohen

          If the Tree of Life Synogogue in Pittsburgh had had armed guards the massacre might not have happened.

          Reply to Comment
    3. BW

      Should the Jews of Gomel have allowed the pogromist to kill them instead of fighting back? Should the Warsaw ghetto have remained quiet instead of rising up? Should the Vilna ghetto have done the same?

      Sad a doctoral candidate can’t seem to use basic logic and has a false historical rendering of history. The Jews of Eastern Europe were close to completely annihilated in the Holocaust and the Zionists remain alive. But I guess the Zionists should of stayed? Regardless of whatever your views on Zionism are, they are irrelevant in the face of history. Irrelevant to the fact that the majority of Middle Eastern and North African Jews ended up in Israel.

      Your armchair must be mind numbingly comfortable.

      Reply to Comment
      • duh

        “Regardless of whatever your views on Zionism are, they are irrelevant in the face of history.”

        History shows that Zionism was not a movement to rescue Jews from Europe. Major leaders like Ruppin and Weizmann were vocally against transplanting the entirety of E. European Jewry into the Yishuv. In Feb. 1940, Weizmann told a US State Department official he planned on settling one million Jewish survivors of the war in Palestine… while another 1.5 million would just stay in Europe and be “human dust”.

        History also shows that Israel sold weapons to the one regime that probably killed the most Jews since WWII, Argentina under the dictatorship of Leopold Galtieri.

        Jews in the West who think Israel has their best interest at heart because they’re Jewish are in for a nasty surprise. If the situation for Jews gets worse in the US, some might escape to Israel, sure, but there’s going to be diminishing returns.

        Reply to Comment
        • BW

          Nice Straw man argument… You haven’t addressed my point. You’ve cited one leader out of a far larger number, and still fail to answer the questions; should the Jews of Gomel not have defended themselves? Should the Warsaw Ghetto not have risen up?

          I’m not here to absolve a state or an ideology. History shows a far greater number of Jews who left for Palestine survived WWII, the majority who stayed in Europe were annihilated.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            @BW: Excuse me but I find it glaringly ironic that you accuse others of straw man arguments when you yourself used very clearly a straw man argument. Nowhere does Roni Masel say that the Jews of Gomel should have allowed the pogromists to kill them instead of fighting back, or that the Warsaw ghetto should have remained quiet instead of rising up, or that the Vilna ghetto should have done the same. Masel obviously said none of that. Masel only says that that, just as simplistically arming school teachers is not the answer to ending school shooting massacres, so is Jewish armed self-defense not an intelligent, sophisticated and long term answer, that the long-standing Jewish diasporic tradition of diplomacy, negotiation, intercession and politics needs to be emphasized.

            Reply to Comment
          • duh

            I think my point was perfectly clear – yes many Jews were saved from the Holocaust by going to Palestine but even without the quotas imposed by the British there would’ve been diminishing returns. I expect you to know Weizmann was one of the most important leaders of the movement and the fact he had no wish to rescue every Jew in Europe counts heavily (of course he wasn’t alone in the sentiment).

            I’m here to evaluate Zionism as a movement and scrutinize the moral highground its defenders typically assume. The notion that it was striving to rescue every Jew possible is odious.

            Of course Jews should arm themselves against oppression. It’s just that Zionism was about the empowerment of a select group of Jews who would be oppressors themselves.

            Reply to Comment
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